by Maddy Smith
The game of bridge. Louis Sachar, award-winning author of the spectacular young adult novel, Holes (Yearling, 2000), wrote his newest novel for 11+ about the game of bridge. I couldn’t believe it. With all the wonderfully complex and creative ideas to write about, with all his genius and potential… he’d chosen bridge. I’m a huge fan of Louis Sachar, but even I doubted his ability to make a book about a teenage boy who turns cards for his blind uncle exciting—an opinion which, according to Sachar’s introduction, was shared by his publisher, editor, wife, and agent. As a result, my attitude when I picked up The Cardturner (Doubleday, 2010), was, let us say, sceptical. Then I started the book, and I was soon converted. Not only was The Cardturner funny, engaging, smart and wise beyond my wildest expectations, it was actually making me enjoy a card game I thought you had to be born knowing how to play. In fact, I found myself in the highly unusual position of having to force myself to put the book down in favour of things like food and sleep… I couldn’t stop reading (I love it when this happens).
The novel is set in the present day, and indeed the characters and the tone are both extremely contemporary (Sachar has even managed to subtly capture the financial anxieties of the last few years). Narrator and protagonist Alton Richards is philosophical, funny and quick, and while his story is timeless (boy goes to work for curmudgeonly relative; boy meets girl; boy learns family secrets and—well, I can’t tell you any more or I’ll spoil the story: you’ll just have to trust me), it is also utterly modern. However, a compelling subplot threaded throughout also recreates a time when bridge was played in all the best houses (especially that big white one in Washington, DC), when “I Like Ike” was a national catchphrase, and when a woman was most definitely the property of her husband. Add to that the superb supporting cast of modern-day characters including Lester’s unusual niece Toni (also known as his protégée and ex-cardturner), Alton’s financially anxious parents, his ever-cool best friend Cliff (yes, the one who Alton’s girlfriend Katie dumped him for), and his younger sister Leslie (who shows more cool-headed intelligence than anyone who isn’t 11 would believe), and you have the recipe for an absolutely stellar novel. Plot and characters alike are powerful, complex, and touched in turns by tragedy and joy, sorrow and laughter. Issues of sexism, domestic violence, politics, romance, religion, and even the meaning of life are deftly interwoven in this unique coming-of-age story, as Alton struggles to discover his own identity and beliefs—inspired by everything from his remarkable yet caustic uncle, to Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, to the complex, fascinating game that is unfolding before Alton as he is drawn further into the world of bridge.
Indeed, as you read The Cardturner you too may find yourself drawn into a world of excitement and intelligence: Sachar, himself a devotee of bridge from a very early age, infuses the story with his passion as he offers instruction on everything from the basic rules of the game to complex and intriguing ploys to aid you in the national championships. These instructions are preceded by the image of a whale (inspired by another dense epic, Moby Dick, which similarly goes into detail that, while incredibly important, isn’t strictly relevant to the main story), so, as Alton says “if that makes you zone out, you can skip ahead to the summary box” where the play is described as briefly as possible and you can get back to the plot. However, Sachar’s intelligent, accurate, and cleverly colloquial description of the plays will have you diving deep into the details of bridge, relishing the excitement inherent in the explanation.
Louis Sachar is well-known as a smart and funny writer. But until you read this book, you cannot fully grasp just how truly and completely wise and talented he really is. This April, whether the rain is beating against the window panes or the sunlight is warming your face as you gaze up into the clear blue skies, take a chance, try something new, and read The Cardturner—you will absolutely not regret it, and it might just change your life; it’s certainly changed mine.
Maddy Smith is a children’s bookseller and an Islander born and bred; she reads, writes, and believes in the magic of a great book.